Speaking to Romy Gill makes you want to go away and cook a delicious curry. Or at the very least, eat one. Fresh from a cooking demo at Riverford’s Field Kitchen, she has a wonderfully aromatic way of talking about spices and flavour combinations, until you can almost smell the cumin and hear the mustard seeds popping in the pan.
“For me, vegetables are all about learning the spices. Don’t be scared to smell them, taste them, feel them. What noise or smell is that spice going to make? I think it’s very important with spices, I feel, to have all the senses involved.
“You need to work out how they work together, everyone has their own spice blend and you can learn and add to that. Stop chucking them all in together,” she laughs.
It’s been a busy few years for the self-taught chef turned restaurateur, scooping up an MBE in the process. News of her restaurant Romy’s Kitchen, which opened in Bristol in 2013, spread by word of mouth into foodie circles, and after critics like Grace Dent began to take note, Gill’s star was set.
The restaurant closed in 2019 for Gill to focus on other projects, notably her new book, Zaika, which she calls “a homage and a love letter” to her mother, who passed away from cancer last year.
“She was a wonderful lady, full of flavour and full of life, and so that’s why the book’s name is Zaika – zaika means flavour,” she explains.
“The reason I’ve written a vegan cookbook was because in many countries it has become a trend, and secondly, many people are thinking about the environment which is great,” says Gill, who is not a vegan herself and is open about eating meat and cooking with everything.
“I wanted people to have a taste of me and what I grew up eating. I grew up in India, and I wanted to write a book that was very close to my heart. I was writing a different book, but when she passed away, I chose a vegan book and the food I grew up with,” she says.
Meat versus veganism is often presented online as a toxic divide, something that doesn’t necessarily exist in real life. Only one per cent of the population claim to be fully vegan, while the percentage of flexitarians, or those simply wishing to reduce their intake of meat and dairy and try more plant-based eating, is much higher.
It’s a nuance that Gill is well aware of: she’s quick to point out variations of a vegan diet, questioning the need for ‘vegan cheese’ and describing processed meat alternatives as “unnatural”.
Not surprising from a chef whose latest book is all about cooking plant-based meals from scratch, using fruit and vegetables, spices, grains and pulses.
“I’m not preaching for anyone to become plant-based but eating less meat will help the environment. Personally, I don’t want to eat meat every day,” she says.
Gill is about to be propelled to the front of mainstream TV as the first episodes of the new series of Ready Steady Cook air on BBC1, presented by Rylan Clark-Neale.
“I used to watch that programme religiously and think, ‘wow, isn’t it amazing to see those people in the audience and I would like to go and hold that green pepper or tomato’.
“Years later, the thought that I will be the talent on it! People might think it’s a cliché but we became such a family. We have this Whatsapp group and we are so connected with each other.
“There is no hierarchy among the chefs. Of course, there is a competitiveness among us, but I just think there were no egos there.”
It’s a sense of equality and respect that she values elsewhere, describing a close circle of friends in the food industry, including fellow cook Melissa Hemsley who she says she “cherishes”.
“There are always one or two people, and obviously there is the men’s club and the Michelin club, but I just think, if you don’t have time for me, then I don’t have time for you.”
Sustainability will feature in the new series of the programme, says Gill, which will avoid buying food in plastic, where possible, source high quality food, and redistribute all edible surplus food to charities.
“As a restaurateur and chef, you also need to know where you’re sourcing things from, that’s very important,” she says. “Everything at Romy’s Kitchen in Bristol came from the south west, locally sourced, apart from the spices came from India. All my fish, meat, veg, and we grew vegetables as well as we had a vegetable patch at the back of the restaurant.
“I think local sourcing is very important. You need to support your local producers and you need to support the produce of the country. Why do we have to wait for another country, why can’t we be seasonal?”
After a year writing a book, hot off the heels of a restaurant closure and her mother passing away, understandably, Gill says she is now ready for a break.
Those waiting for the next bricks and mortar version of Gill’s flavour-filled and rave-reviewed Indian food may have a little longer to wait – she is planning a new book based around Kashmiri recipes and culture – but there is certainly more to come from the queen of Indian cuisine. Watch this space.
Get to know: Romy Gill
What’s your guilty food pleasure? Cheese on toast. I could live on it. Sometimes with rose harissa or chilli flakes on it. And I’ll have a cup of chai, which is Indian tea.
Where’s your favourite place in the world? Recently I went to the Himalayas in India, and I fell in love with the people and the place. It’s so beautiful. So the next book I’m writing will be about Kashmir.
What do you do outside of food? The last marathon I ran was the London Marathon last year. I will do a couple more before I’m 50, and I will keep on running halfs.
Will you open another restaurant? Yes! I think it might be London or Bristol city centre. But I want to take a year off from the restaurant, I’ve worked really hard and I need a break.